Santa Barbara International Film Festival Opening Night: Day 1

Midlife, Feisty, and Wise

2020 SBIFF Opening Night at the Arlington Theatre. | Credit: Paul Wellman

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If 35 years of age does, in fact, count as the gateway to midlife, must SBIFF must now grapple with the possibility of a midlife meltdown? Alas, there seems to be no crisis in sight for the festival, which has — especially in the past decade and change — become a beacon on Santa Barbara’s cultural calendar. 

We’re so trained by SBIFF’s place on the annual local calendar that it was at least a minor shock to the system to find the event held two weeks earlier than usual this year — nudged up by the Academy Awards’ early timing. Something feels slightly wrong with our collective internal clock. 

But all seemed right and in sync with the world at The Arlington Theatre on opening night, Wednesday, January 15. There was Mayor Cathy Murillo, who cheerfully and semi-mystically dispensed her civic greeting to the crowd, presumably stocked with outta-towners: “I’m going to sprinkle some fairy dust on you and hope you have a cathartic experience and live happily ever after.” Okay then — no bland, boilerplate statement for this mayor in this special town.

And there was the festival’s intrepid director and longtime domo-next-door, Roger Durling, looking dapper in a John Lennon-esque white suit. He praised the crowd in attendance — and the crowds to come — for opting out of Netflix binge-watching torpor in favor of the time-honored big-screen experience. “You have opted to be next to living human beings, opted to be in a community,” he said. He emphasized the communal aspect of cinema-going (going, as in leaving our fine homes and home theater set-ups), calling the act of going to the theater as “the great equalizer. We’re all the same. There are no borders.”

Durling also paid a deserved and poignant tribute to important community figure Russ Spencer, who died in 2019: He was a filmmaker, writer, people connector, and a critical component in ramping up the now considerable area filmmaker presence at this festival. 

Last night’s opening film, the fine and feel-goodly (and notably female-driven and female-powered) A Bump in the Road brought about warm feelings in a festival kickoff slot that has historically not always been a good indicator of the quality to come. An Irish film (whose brogued dialogue was sometimes hard to follow), the film — directed by Shelley Love —follows the tale of a fortysomething single mother (Bronagh Gallagher) who finds herself pregnant, with humor, pathos, and feminist power in the wake.

The movie’s agreeable and salty strengths amounted to a possibly prescient signal for what’s to come over the next week and a half. Cinema geeks are readying for a torrent of film binging. And, from the Hollywood-geared angle, celebrity watchers are poised for sharing a room — well, the 2,000-plus seat Arlington — with stellar names, including a Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver (of Marriage Story fame) on Friday, January 17; Renée Zellweger (Thursday, January 16), who so potently captured Judy Garland’s persona in Judy; Lupita Nyong’o (Monday, January 20); and Laura Dern (Tuesday, January 21). 

Skeptics may cock a head regarding the choice of Brad Pitt as recipient of the Maltin Modern Master Award (Wednesday, January 22), just as they did when American sweetheart Will Smith was adorned with the “master’s” touch years ago. Then again, Pitt’s cool charisma as a stuntman in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and also as an astronaut in Ad Astra worked last year because the films played up his minimalist flair.

Hollywood and Oscar-linked artists and craft folks will also be drifting through town at panels, the Virtuosos Award event on Saturday, January 18, and the underrated but always intriguing Artisans Award night (Sunday, January 19). Other perennial favorites on the program are the Writers Panel (Sunday, January 19), the Outstanding Directors of the Year award (last year’s all-Oscar nominee collection was the stand out tribute evening of the whole festival), and a special screening of this year’s landmark film Parasite, a Korean film nominated for the general purpose Best Film Oscar, with a post-screening Q&A with prized and praised director Bong Joon Ho (Thursday, January 23). 

For many, the great SBIFF riches are found in the cine-trenches of the world cinema programming for the next 10 days. To paraphrase Durling, in this age of home-bound TV watchers, the chance to take in films from around the world, in the embrace of a big screen with live human audiences, is a renewable blessing and treasure in our fair town. 

Ten days. Hundreds of options on screens and stages. Let the cinematic games, gems, and in-betweeners begin. 

What to See: Of the handfuls of films I’ve screened in advance, I can give thumbs-up to the following titles, which will be screening over the next few days: The Restoration, Kuessipan, Black Conflux, By a Sharp Knife. Watch this space for plenty more thumbs-upping (or downing) to come. 

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